The area was rocked by two explosions just after 1 a.m., rousing residents from their beds and triggering two waves of evacuation orders.
Three of the cars, each carrying pressurized liquefied petroleum gas, caught fire after the derailment.
The situation was so volatile that firefighters simply backed off and decided to let the fire burn itself out. One of the cars has burned itself out, leaving two others still in flames.
“As long as we have the fire burning the gas that is being expelled from the pressure vessels, we know where that gas is – and it’s safer just to let it flare until the product is consumed,” said Parkland County Fire Chief Jim Phalen.
Four derailed freight cars carrying crude are still intact.
Speaking Saturday night, officials said it could take at least 24 hours for the fuel to burn itself out – and may take up to 72 hours before residents are permitted to return home.
CN said the train was travelling to Vancouver from Edmonton.
CN defends safety record
Investigators from both the Transportation Safety Board and from CN itself have begun their examination into the cause of the derailment.
As of Saturday night, however, both said the risk posed by the still-burning cars prevented them from getting close to the scene.
In a statement, CN said the track was tested last week as well as last month and no issues were found. It also said an inspection of the train when it left Edmonton on Friday found no problems.
Speaking Saturday night, CN’s Chief Operating Officer Jim Vena apologized to the residents of Gainford for the disruption, and promised the company would get to the bottom of what happened to prevent it from happening again.
“All of us at CN are very much aware of how this incident has disrupted your lives,” he said. “I regret this very much and again apologize for the inconvenience you are experiencing.”
Vena also acknowledged this latest incident is the third high-profile derailment involving trains carrying hazardous materials within the space of a month.
Saturday's mishap occurred just two days after residents in the Alberta community of Sexsmith were forced from their homes when four CN rail cars carrying anhydrous ammonia left the rails.
That followed, some carrying petroleum, ethanol and chemicals, in western Saskatchewan on Sept. 25.
There were no injuries in any of the derailments.
Despite the cluster of derailments, a CN spokesman said rail remains a safe way to transport materials.
Given the recent cluster of derailments, Vena said it was only natural that people are asking questions about CN’s safety record.
However, he said, the company’s overall track record speaks for itself.
“I want to make it clear we are committed to running a safe railroad. Unfortunately, accidents happen. But we are working hard to reduce them as much as we can. Last year was the safest year in CN’s history.”
A CN spokesman said rail remains a safe way to transport materials.
"CN's safety record has been very solid, in terms of its main track derailments last year, they were the lowest on record," said company spokesman Mark Hallman.
"The vast majority of commodities, such as dangerous commodities, that are transported from origin to destination, more than 99 per cent reach destination without any accidental release."
Chow calls for more inspections
Federal New Democrat MP Olivia Chow took issue with that assessment. She called on the federal government to take stronger action to improve rail safety.
"The latest train derailment, fire and evacuation tell the Conservative government that vague promise without a clear work plan is not enough," Chow said in an email.
She said inspections need to be increased and automatic braking systems need to be mandated. Municipalities also need to be given better information about what dangerous goods are being transported on trains.
Federal Transport Minister Lisa Raitt's office issued a statement saying the federal government has invested over $100 million in rail safety and brought in tougher fines for companies that violate safety regulations.
Displaced residents worry for animals
Parkland County Mayor Rodney Shaigec told CBC News he hoped to be able to soon tell residents when exactly they can return home.
"Some of the residents in that area do have livestock and animals which they haven't been able to attend to so it's quite disruptive, and there are also businesses in the area that of course aren't able to operate," he said.
Nearby resident Elaine Hughes told CBC’s Laura Osman she woke to her entire trailer shaking and looked out her window to see the entire sky lit up by the flames. After witnessing a fireball burst in the sky, however, she said the explosion quickly died down and she returned to bed.
It wasn’t until 9 a.m. local time that officials arrived to tell her to leave her home.
Others, like Denise Anderson, said they received notice to leave closer to 3 a.m.
“Two fire and rescue guys came and banged on the door and [they] tell me I had to evacuate because there was a train derailment,” she said. “They told me to get dressed and I had to go.”
As of Saturday evening, most residents said they were told they would not be able to return home until at least Monday.
Gainford accident affects major highway, Via route
Traffic along the Yellowhead Highway – the main east-west corridor in northern Alberta, connecting Edmonton with Jasper – has been rerouted while crews work to contain and manage the scene.
Vehicles are being detoured north along Secondary Highway 765, westbound along Secondary Highway 633 and returning southbound on Secondary Highway 757.
It is unknown when the highway will re-open, but will likely not be until Monday.
A CN spokesperson said it is also still unknown when the tracks, which also run a VIA rail service, will reopen.
Rail transit controversy continues
The recent derailments come as documents obtained by Greenpeace suggest CN is considering shipping Alberta bitumen to Prince Rupert, B.C., in quantities matching the controversial North Gateway pipeline.
A departmental briefing note obtained under access to information laws said CN was reportedly working with Chinese-owned oil giant Nexen to examine transporting crude by rail to be loaded onto tankers for export to Asia.
CN denied it made a specific proposal for Prince Rupert, but said it will consider any such project as it comes up.
The Northern Gateway project has faced intense scrutiny and criticism and it was unclear whether the project would get the necessary approval.
There has also been intense scrutiny over shipping oil by rail following July's horrific derailment of a Montreal, Maine and Atlantic train in Lac-Mégantic, Que. The subsequent fire claimed 47 lives.